The coming war for water

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Atop the disputed Baglihar Dam in the mountains of Kashmir, the Chenab River roars like a 747 as its silvery waters churn the dam's massive turbines and boil out over the ravine in a tremendous, spiraling white waterfall.

The air is moist, and a massive cloud of mist floats downstream toward the roadway, where moments ago a dozen busloads of soldiers headed for posts along India's border with Pakistan have rumbled across a narrow bridge.

“Even today, soldiers are moving up and down all the time,” says my translator and guide, Rashid Dangola, a white-haired houseboat owner from Srinagar who tells me that in the heyday of India-administered Kashmir's armed struggle for independence he would buy his booze from the army and his hashish from the militants.

These troop movements are indeed a constant part of daily life in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where the Indian army stations 600,000 to 800,000 soldiers — more than double the number deployed for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A fragile cease-fire has held here since November 2003, but Kashmir remains one of the most dangerous places in the world. Anger over the bloody partition that divided India and Pakistan in 1947 and a bitter feud over the ownership of this majestic portion of the Himalayas have led the two subcontinental powers to three full-fledged wars and a perilous standoff in 2002, when many world powers feared the dispute would go nuclear.

There are many reasons for the Kashmir conflict. But perhaps the most important of them is the water that spews into the sky at my feet. When the British drew the borders partitioning India and Pakistan, their cartographers failed to consider the run of the rivers that would feed the two countries. Kashmir's accession to India granted New Delhi control over the headwaters of the Indus — the lifeline of civilization in what is now Pakistan since 2600 B.C. And although a treaty for sharing the water was worked out in 1960, its foundation has begun to crack under the pressure of the two countries' rapidly growing populations and the specter of climate change.

Shortly before he led Pakistan's troops into the Kargil War, a then-unknown Pakistani general named Pervez Musharraf wrote in his dissertation at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London that the issue of the distribution of the waters of Kashmir between India and Pakistan has “the germs of future conflict.” Because water is the one resource that neither India nor Pakistan can do without, many experts fear that one day the dispute over the Indus — already an incessant source of diplomatic skirmishes — will propel these two nuclear weapons states into an all-out war.

Battles over water are already mounting in number around the world, according to Peter Gleick, an expert at the Pacific Institute. But Kashmir could be the most dangerous flash point. According to a recent United Nations report, Pakistan's water supply has dropped from about 5,000 cubic meters per person in the 1950s to 1,420 cubic meters today — perilously close to the threshold at which water shortage becomes an impediment to economic development and a serious hazard to human health. India, at 1,750 cubic meters per person, is not much better off. Both countries' huge populations are still growing, and because most of the available water comes from the disappearing glaciers of the Himalayas it is extremely vulnerable to climate change.

“We already see evidence that the climate is changing water availability and water quality,” Gleick said. “Kashmir is a place where water may not be the worst of the problem, but like the Sudan, or like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or like the Nile, it's a growing factor in what is already a conflict situation.”

Perhaps worse still, it appears that hawks on both sides are attempting to use water to create an insurmountable impasse in the dispute over Kashmir, rather than acknowledging that the sharing of rivers forms a framework for the two enemies to cooperate. This unease was underscored just last week, when India objected to a Pakistani proposal to build a new dam in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir with the help of the Chinese.

In Srinagar's Cafe Arabica, I met with two Kashmiri journalists, Parvaiz Bukhari of the Mail Today and Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express. In most respects, the two seasoned reporters could not be more different. Bukhari, a former TV journalist, is a handsome, bearded man with a grave voice, and an eloquent turn of phrase. “In an abnormal situation, the normal becomes news,” he told me, referring to countless New Delhi newspaper articles that featured the cafe where we were meeting as evidence that Kashmir's long-curfewed nightlife was picking up. Bukhari is also prone to grandiose statements that gives him something of the manner of the frustrated revolutionary. “You have to offer yourself to the judgment of history!” he exclaimed at some point about one politician or the other.

Jaleel, by contrast, is ebullient and manic, and gushes with gossip. He stormed into our bull session shouting out his order to the barista across the room.

Both of them, however, were united in their cynicism about the saber rattling over water in India and Pakistan. On the Indian side, Jaleel pointed out, right-wing politicians have sought to turn Kashmir into a Hindu holy land of sorts to make ceding any of its territory non-negotiable. This is the impulse behind the strong political support for the Amarnath Yatra, a new pilgrimage to a cave in the mountains above Srinagar where an ice formation resembles a lingam — a Hindu religious symbol representing the phallus of the god Shiva. The same motive lies behind a new festival called the Sindhu Darshan, which casts the Indus as a Hindu river, though it was the cradle of ancient civilizations in what is today Pakistan long before Hinduism existed. “India is trying to turn the rivers of Kashmir into religious symbols,” Jaleel said.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the opponents of detente cast the battle for Kashmir as a struggle for survival to prevent governments there from giving any ground, according to a new report by Mumbai's Strategic Foresight Group. Recalling the standoff on the border in 2002, the report's authors argue that Pakistani ideologues immediately leaped to the conclusion that India planned to use water as a weapon without any prompting from New Delhi, and predicted that such a move would ultimately lead to a Pakistani nuclear strike. At the same time, a leader from an umbrella organization of Pakistani jihadi groups told a local newspaper: “Kashmir is the source from where all of Pakistan's water resources originate. If Pakistan loses this battle against India, it will become a desert.”

Though Indians tend to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as senseless paranoia, Pakistan's fears are not completely unfounded. Almost immediately after Partition, India diverted the Ravi and Sutlej rivers, depriving the city of Lahore and Pakistan's irrigation canals of water during the spring sowing season. Now, whenever a new Indian dam comes up, Pakistani commentators see the project as another move to starve them out. One Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, for instance, lumped Baglihar in with 50 others built “in gross violation of the Indus Waters Treaty,” lamenting “India simply cut off waters flowing into Pakistan, dealing a big blow to our agriculture and economy.”

Kashmiris on both sides of the border — or Line of Control, as it is known locally — are caught in the middle. The Indus Waters Treaty, drawn up in 1960, has prevented India and Pakistan from going to war over the rivers of the Himalayas for almost 50 years by granting India exclusive use of the three eastern tributaries of the Indus, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers, and granting Pakistan exclusive rights to the three western tributaries, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.

But it has also prevented development of irrigation and hydroelectric projects in Kashmir itself. The treaty caps the amount of land Kashmir can irrigate and sets strict regulations on how and where water can be stored — making hydropower projects on the Chenab, like the Baglihar dam, difficult to execute. And, increasingly, the limitations imposed on India by the treaty are becoming a motivating force in Indian-administered Kashmir's struggle for independence.

“It is the irony of history that the waters belonging to Kashmiris are being decided by India and Pakistan. They have robbed us of our own natural resources,” said Shabir Ahmad Dar, the diminutive but passionate chief superintendent of the Hurriyat Conference — an alliance of separatist parties. “They have signed a treaty that is leading us to war.”

As to why this is so, conspiracy theories abound among the common people of Kashmir who I came across while traveling around Srinagar and its environs with Sajaad Hussain, an activist who chairs an NGO called the J&K Research Development Trust. A fair-skinned Kashmiri with long, dirty-blond hair, Hussain, too, was outraged that India's most water-rich state was struggling to meet its own needs.

As cup after cup of salted tea flowed from the samovar in Hussain's house in Srinagar's politically volatile downtown region, an interesting picture emerged of the common Kashmiri's perspective on India's water dispute with Pakistan. Motivated in part by wishful thinking, the consensus here was that India uses the dispute with Pakistan as an excuse not to invest in Kashmir's infrastructure, because it fears it may one day have to give up its claims on the territory.

“They (India) say that Kashmir is an unbreakable part of India,” exclaimed one of the tea drinkers. “But they do not treat it that way.” The next day, Haseeb Drabu, who as chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank has struggled to finance many hydroelectric power projects in the state, told me a somewhat different story. “There are all kinds of conspiracy theories, but the fact of the matter is that the state government doesn't have any money.” Nevertheless, Drabu, too — however optimistic he is about the Indian-administered Kashmir's ability to exploit its water resources — firmly believes that water will increasingly become a source of conflict. “Water will be the most potent political weapon by which India will screw Pakistan, because they have a huge problem as it is,” Drabu told me. “[Eventually] they will sign off on whatever we say, and say give it [water] to me, because they have such big problems.”

Downstream from the Baglihar Dam, the executive engineer on the project explained over stacks of toast and mango chutney how serious the threat of conflict has already become. Not two weeks before, an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist captured near the border by the Indian army had reportedly revealed plans to attack the dam — which Pakistan has opposed from the outset, approaching the World Bank for arbitration in 2005. “Everything in this place is under threat,” the engineer said. “What can we do? We continue our work.”

Most Kashmiris feel the same resignation. But in their mouths it leaves a bitter taste.

(Melting Himalayan ice is posing problems throughout Asia. Over a billion people rely on water that descends from glaciers that scientists predict will disappear by 2050. Read more about this on Passport, GlobalPost's premium content section — membership required.)